The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.

What the Public Thinks vs. What the Media Says about Public School Reform

In a short, readable reflection,  Going the Wrong Way?  What the Public Says about Education ReformBill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, former Vermont school superintendent, and educational researcher, explores the disconnect between the state of public education reform and the concerns of the public.  His reflection was written to mark the beginning of the school year and the recent release of the 45th Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools.

Mathis declares, “A couple of findings jump out: Most people have not heard of many of the nation’s biggest reform efforts and when they have, they are increasingly dissatisfied with the top-down, test-driven market-model orientation of these initiatives.”  He surmises that perhaps one reason most people have never heard of the Common Core Standards much discussed among policy experts is “because they were developed outside of the normal governmental oversight.”

He reports that the public has soured on mandated standardized tests, that most parents are pleased with their own child’s school, and that “the public sees the greatest problem is the lack of financial support—the number one concern for the last 45 years.”  According to Mathis, “This view is supported by the fact that the United States is the only developed nation where educational spending on needy children is lower than for other children.”

As a companion piece to Mathis’ article, you may also want to read Anthony Cody’s concerns: Education Nation, 2013: Will NBC News Use the Gates Foundation’s Facts Again? Or Can We Get a Real Dialogue Going?  He wonders whether this year, in the fourth edition of NBC’s Education Nation series (set to air between October 6 and October 8) we can expect objective news coverage or whether the sponsor’s biases will again provide the framework for the programming.

Anthony Cody is a former public school science teacher in Oakland, California and now a blogger at Teacher Magazine and advocate for supporting public school teachers and improving public schools.

The Education Nation series on NBC has been sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has in the past portrayed Gates Foundation’s priorities as if they are the news.  Cody reminds us that, “Two years ago, Brian Williams opened Education Nation‘s Teacher Town Hall event with an interview with Melinda Gates, saying: ‘Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world.  It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.'”

Reading Mathis’ and Cody’s reflections together exposes the role of money these days in developing and promoting public education policy and at least part of the disconnect Mathis describes between the priorities of the public and the reality of the politics.

Should Private Foundations Set the Direction for Public Schools and Higher Education?

For most of us philanthropy connotes public uplift—Carnegie Libraries — grants to support settlement houses — scientific research.  Today, however, when huge foundations have become primary players in the public education policy debate, there is growing concern that the foundations are accountable to their own boards but not to the public.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, the education historian and school “reform” critic, declares: “it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people;  when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review as a public agency should be…  The foundations demand that public  schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.” (200-201)

Ravitch dubbed the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations the “Billionaire Boys.”   Like a growing group of their critics, she worries that powerful foundations are increasingly granting proactively to pursue their own explicit agendas rather than responding to the proposals they receive.

Two recent, thoughtful articles raise similar questions.  Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, decries The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education.  Dreier traces the investment of funders—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, far-right investor Philip Anschutz, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch—in the creation, promotion, and distribution of  films (Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down) that promote privatization and attack public school teachers and teachers unions.

Drier contrasts the work of the Billionaire Boys to the production of a different kind of film, created (without philanthropic support and with a far more modest budget) by teams of college and high school students and professional film makers, each of which followed one person through a school day in Pasadena, California, “where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only ) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.”   Dreier describes the film, Go Public: A Day in the life of an American School District as a sort of collage of footage of the schools, edited without narrative commentary.  I urge you to read his moving description of the film and check out the website.

A second article, a special report recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explores The Gates Effect.  Gates Foundation grants are supporting a major policy shift at the college level—an agenda of “competency-based” higher education that emphasizes a shift to on-line courses; teachers as on-line coaches, not “deliverers of learning;” and measurement of students’  competencies on assigned tasks rather than required hours in class. The goal is “delivering a college degree priced at no more than $5,000 a year.”  Writers for The Chronicle worry that,  “Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.  To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education… The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.”